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The Golden Age of Jewish American Literature
(Released March 2010)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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Literary Works


Bellowing a New America


Saul Bellow's first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, develop themes of angst and alienation common in both modernist and Jewish literature. The Adventures of Augie March, however, a sprawling, picaresque novel combining elements of Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens, yet transposed to the New World, announced a new voice in American literature. The Jewish element of the novel, while always present, is normalized. Jewishness, then, becomes not a mark of otherness, but simply one element of a new American identity, as Augie March scrambles for success, largely through his own effort and intelligence, making of him a quintesential American.

Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow
Perhaps even more so than The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King (1959) is a wild adventure novel, one that takes place in a mythologized version of Africa not based on the actual continent. Bellow's only non-Jewish protagonist, Eugene Henderson, is an American incarnate, a tremendous individualist searching a vast continent while finding his identity. In one instance, he suggests that an African tribe should leave behind tradition, to create new traditions as needed, claiming that the Romans defeated the Jews because "they wouldn't fight back on Saturdays" and suggests that the tribe "Live . . . to make another custom." This assertion of self fashioning, of freedom, would seem to suggest that America's Jews leave behind the past.

Yet Bellow does not shed his Jewish identity to become a new, deracinated American. Through memories of the Holocaust as a negative prompt, and portraits of Jewish American intellectuals as positive icons, Bellow's work would continue to uphold Jewishness, albeit in a new context. As Eugene Goodheart explains, "Bellow's career oscillates between the present- and future-mindedness of his American identity and memories of the Yiddishkeit he imbibed with his mother's milk." In the bulk of Bellow's career, his characters form a new, hybrid identity, quintessentially Jewish and quintessentially American, old world intellectuals in a situation of unprecedented affluence and freedom. In Herzog (1964), probably Bellow's most acclaimed novel, the protagonist, Moses Herzog, deals with a situation prototypical for American novels at this time, notably in John Updike's work: infidelity and divorce. Absent the life-or-death issues of war and violence, absent poverty, divorce is probably the most meaningful plot element for an affluent America. Moses Herzog is especially beset as his wife has betrayed him with his best friend, and the two expect him to deal with a situation of primal anger with rational humanism. Herzog reacts by writing a series of anguished letters to friends, family, academics and politicians about the great issues of his day, melding the personal, intellectual, and social. The novel's end offers a fresh start, a tip to America as the land of renewal.

Indeed, like many Jews of his day, Bellow had come to see America as a kind of haven for Jews. If earlier Jewish intellectuals had maintained a favorable view of European socialism-defined as a skepticism with society as it exists in favor of an ideal vision-this idealism was fading for a portion of the intelligentsia, most notably the neoconservatives, with whom Bellow is sometimes associated. Several of his later novels did explore such issues, although sometimes in ways that couldn't be easily pigeon-holed. In Mr. Sammlers Planet an elderly Holocaust survivor is pursued by a black thief on the streets of New York. Although the highly educated Artur Sammler appears to represent an old-world civilization now destroyed, and the black thief new-world primitivism, in the conclusion, as Sammler watches the thief defeated and bleeding on the sidewalk, he experiences the human connection between the two. Sammler's Holocaust experience had given the lie to the veneer of civilization, and this lie is once again exposed.

The works of the aging Bellow grew more critical of America's youth, seeing them as shallow and selfish. In part this was a reaction to the protest culture of the 1960s and the campus "political correctness" that followed. In part, though, it seems to stem from America's disconnect with, and disrespect for, European culture and tradition, a critique made explicity by Bellow's friend and University of Chicago colleague Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). The Dean's December (1982), for instance, depicts a college campus thriving with callow, radical youth, notably the protagonist's nephew.

If Bellow's later novels were increasingly political, they remained complex, humanistic portraits touched with humor and cynicism. His final novel, Ravelstein (2000), a fictionalized portrait of Allan Bloom, has been criticized as overly political, yet also praised a complex human portrait of an intellectual at war with the modern world. Bellow's oscillating position as embattled Jewish intellectual and contradictory humanist places him as central in the quest to define the Jewish position in America.

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